In the early years of Feenix Films, there wasn’t anyone who was interested in directing a project, Dave stepped in and discovered a deep love for filmmaking and greatly enjoyed the collaboration that directing a film entailed. The ability to communicate, steer, and work with a cast and crew, while forming the tapestry that becomes a living and breathing piece of film, has been the true pinnacle of Dave’s career.
Hi, David! Thank you for the opportunity to interview you. We have quite a few questions, so we’ll get started. You will soon teach a class at Champlain College and showing a screening of your latest film Clandestine. First, let’s talk Clandestine.
Thank you for your interest in the film. Clandestine is a film that was written by Kate A. McGrath and based partly on her father’s 30 plus year history as a police officer in Long Island, NY. The film focuses strongly on the people that are involved in the “war on drugs” and how it affects them. We use Meth as the drug affecting this town due to the fact that Meth has only just been creeping in to the East Coast. It is still not fully accepted as being here and we felt that was a great example of what goes on with some towns and this issue. We actually showcase this in the film. We see some law enforcement officials who are “seasoned” and some would say “closed off” to the process. We have others who are just being brought in and the duality of the two pose a very interesting contradiction. We also made a point of not judging anyone in this, we wanted to focus on the people and that is what attracted me to the script from the start.
We were so thrilled to hear you’re teaching a class. We have a few questions from some of our staff. With so many new tools to create film, how does one choose the best tool for their project? (e.g. Black Magic, RED, or smartphone).
It was a great opportunity that film professor Julia Swift at Champlain College asked us to do. The new tools that are out there are really leveling the playing field, and I felt it was important for film students to be aware of the fact that you can do a lot for very little financially nowadays. So, when we were offered the chance to go and speak to them and do a class, I for one jumped at it, as did my fellow producers and owners of Feenix Films. As far as finding the right tool for a project I would look at what kind of story you need, or want, to tell. An intimate story is perhaps going to be more about close-ups you may not need large sweeping shots but you will need a camera that has good adaptability with lenses and also captures your actors accurately. I think the urge is to go BIG but a film captured with the wrong method won’t most likely serve your project and in my experience can work against what you’re trying to do.
We know it’s important to have a strong team to support the film. For those on a limited budget (e.g. Raman noodles and snicker bars type budget), should they invest more in the script, editing, or cinematography?
First, the best thing to invest in IS your team. I’ve said this before but you have to ensure that you are working with people, who are as equally driven as yourself and can also stand on their own two feet. Because you can have a great script, editing, and cinematography and have ineffective people, who don’t communicate and it all becomes about massaging their egos. That’s not effective towards success. If you go that route, you will most likely have your film not be a positive experience for yourself or those involved. When you have a good team, it gives you the opportunity to trust what your team is saying to you. I run Feenix Films with Kate McGrath, Janine Laino, and Nick DeMatteo and that investment has gotten us to the point we are at right now. When it comes to investing more in script, editing, or cinematography; all three are important. If you have a film that isn’t lit well, you’ll get hit for that at festivals (same with sound capture for dialogue). If you have a horrible script, then audiences (and your actors) will have trouble with the dialogue and that will work against you. Lastly, an editor needs to be able to create, fix, and fashion a tapestry from footage and moments captured when he or she wasn’t even present. Really understanding the lay of the land is important. We’ve always felt that Sales Agents and Distribution is the ultimate goal of a filmmaker, so we’ve learned to focus more on the business and sales aspect of things than just wanting to get into a lot of festivals. Festivals tend to look for a certain set of items for you to get accepted. Sales Agents and Distributors tend to look for something else. We spent the most money in cinematography and audio for Clandestine because we already felt very stable in the other areas. The more you can teach yourself and keep in house, then the more money you can save and put towards the production in other ways that you may not be well versed or have capabilities in. For Clandestine, we were aiming for great sales agents-which we got in Circus Road Films and solid distribution, which we found with Candy Factory Distribution. Through their efforts we’re currently on iTunes, Amazon (DVD and download), DISH Network, Google Play, and PlayStation Store.
We are a firm believer in keeping yourself in check, and are happy to know this will be one of your topics. With that said, what advice would you give film students on how to post the best and most appropriate content on their social pages?
Stick to what is relevant to the message of your film or film company. There are some people that believe in promoting more celebrity news on their pages, but as far as content we try to keep things structured to relevant topics to our film. We also don’t get preachy. Preachy in our experience makes people tune out. Everyone is trying to understand how to maximize social media nowadays. It’s a completely new form of media that is still being worked out. I personally think the cross-promotion is really important. Have a trailer for your project (or a teaser) so that people can see your work. Share it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and whatever else is found to get results. Then make a point for your audience to be able to go to your website to see even more about your project, what you’ve done before, etc. Making it a point for there to be a quick and easy way for people to contact you with any social media posted is very important. Your social media exists to let people know about you and what you’re doing; it’s your personal PR platform until you are able to hire a professional PR person. Make sure the public can find all your information that you want to relay in one place. Provide links to other platforms. Maximize it all.
Could you discuss the importance of a showreel/demo reel? We believe everyone in the film industry needs one, even if they are a makeup artist that works on film sets.
When I was solely acting, I would update my reel at least once a year. If there was a performance I did that I liked, I would go in and re-edit and put it up. You want to be current because you’re most likely growing and developing as a creative person (whether that is Directing, Acting, DP, Sound, Makeup, etc.) and you want to showcase that so people are seeing your most recent work.
Vimeo and YouTube are used by many filmmakers. We’ve noticed some prefer one medium over another. They both have their pros and cons. Do you believe a film student should utilize both outlets, to expand their reach?
I found Vimeo is great for industry private screeners, etc.,. I found YouTube is great for trailers, teasers, anything you want to share with the public. I know that some have a big preference one way or the other, but for me, at this point in time, they seem to have rather distinct usages. So use both and “expand your reach” as you said. With the stronger focus on instantaneous information, everyone wants to see something right away. The days of people waiting to get a DVD in the mail I think is over. Therefore having the access to share right away is a necessity.
Speaking of teasers. Many film studios are releasing teasers before the official trailer. What is your opinion on this?
Teasers I feel are a great way to get people to notice your film and then want to know more about it. A trailer exists to then drive the point home of what the guts of your film are about. We did this with Clandestine. I wanted a very strong, fast paced, teaser that would make people want to know more about the film and put it on their radar. The response we got back was very inspiring and then once the film got closer to completion we released a trailer that had to do with the “heart” of the film. This was more fitting to the pacing of the overall movie. You don’t want someone to think they are walking in to see a race car movie and they are in fact watching “Out of Africa”-that won’t help you. You have to represent accurately, but sales and getting noticed is, and has always been, a part of the filmmaking world, teasers can do that initial impact.
Tell about Feenix Films history. The topics you’re presenting are based on starting your own production company.
The film company was founded by four actors about 8 ½ years ago, and is currently run by myself, Nick DeMatteo, Kate McGrath, and Janine Laino. We started humbly with making our first project for $400 and by promising locations that we would give them a copy of the film and cross-promote with them on social media (touches upon your other question). We also made a point of officially making the company a LLC. I had several businesses tell me that the reason they allowed us to film was due to the fact that we were treating this as a “real” company and they were impressed when we handed them paperwork and releases to sign. We’ve kept that professionalism and seriousness with each project we’ve made. Our first project was called Lock-Load-Love and focused on the perils of online dating. Our next full-length feature was called Nicky Newark and dealt with a jaded parole officer who wanted to be an actor while figuring out his place in the world. We followed that up with Dealer, which used the background of the 2008 financial collapse to showcase a professional woman living in NYC who ends up being pulled into a relationship with her roommate’s drug dealer. Requiem was our next project which was an amalgam of The Twilight Zone and Tales from the Dark Side, as a young teen looks to her Grandfather for direction in a personally challenging time. All of those films existed for us to learn and develop our abilities. Before Marvel Studios had their Phase 1, we looked at these films as our Phase 1 with Clandestine being the film we were working towards that would be the culmination of all that we had learned up to that point. For Clandestine, we had learned how to navigate union paperwork, budgeting our expenses, payroll for talent, production schedules, locations acquisitions, casting our own project, acquiring a name actor for the film (Tom Sizemore), interacting with our lawyers and so on. There is a lot more to mention, but these are the general responsibilities we had fine tuned and knew we had to be ready for with this project.
It has been massively integral to knowing how and being able to speak with actors. I remember a person I was working on a project with once had said to me that he just expected actors to do what he told them. I remember staring at him and thinking “that’s not going to go over well”. Filmmaking is collaboration. The director is the final voice creatively (although sometimes studios step in for better and sometimes worse) but during the day to day filming there needs to be interaction and explanation. I know that some very established directors don’t believe in this but I love getting into the grit with an actor to flesh out a character and help them understand why I want what I want. For me, this process starts during early rehearsals and script readings and continues all throughout production. Before I had started directing, writing, producing or editing my sole focus was on acting. In those classes from years ago it always helped me when a director would take the time to tell me why he/she wanted something specific. It helped me to understand what their vision was and how the character I was playing fit into it all. From all of my acting classes back in the day, I learned what I needed to be as a director by knowing what I needed as an actor. I like to convey that approach when I’m directing. This approach isn’t always a smooth process, but it’s how I like to do things. I also realized the importance of having fun and allowing people to be relaxed when making a movie. I don’t see much benefit in having everyone tense and stressed. That doesn’t yield to a relaxed cast and crew, and then people are using that energy to worry or be agitated. I want them to be putting their energy into their work and their performance.
Do you have any upcoming projects that we haven’t mentioned?
We actually have five scripts that we are about to start shopping around to investors, distributors, and other interested parties. I’ve written three of them and the writer of Clandestine, Kate McGrath, has written the other two. I can’t go into too much detail about them but they cover a variety of different genres and we’re very excited about them.
What are your favorite 5 things you like to have on your film set?
As I mentioned before; Humor. I want people to show up and look forward to the next 8 to 16 hours.
I like Organization so that everyone knows where his or her costumes and props are for the day. I hated the very early days of our productions, where everything was in one HUGE pile on a table. We were getting our feet wet, but I realized it was an area I wanted improved. I actually have a funny picture of one of those “piles” and that level of chaos is just not helpful.
Being Prepared is such a cliché, but it exists for a reason. When someone doesn’t know what he or she are doing during a shoot, it delays everyone and may even cause for scenes to have to be cut or that the filming schedule may have to be extended.
Communication is another pet-peeve of mine. I want people to communicate what is going on for them and their thoughts on things. I don’t do committee filmmaking, but I do like input. There have been times where due to open communication someone felt comfortable expressing an idea and I ended up using it in the final film.
Dedication is also paramount for me. I’m very dedicated to the people I’m working with as well as those who are supporting us either through investing, locations, etc. I don’t ask anyone to do anything I’m not willing to do myself, so I expect that same level of focus in return. When you hire the right people, and make sure you get your cast and crew right, this isn’t an issue and I’m glad to say it was never a problem during the filming of “Clandestine”. I can also say that in working with my producing partners-Nick DeMatteo, Kate McGrath, and Janine Laino, all of who wore a multitude of hats, it really allows for a smooth production where each person is able to focus on their specific roles whether those roles are in front of the camera, behind the camera, or in the case of the four of us, both.
Do you have a muse?
It’s hard to say. I think all the people in my life have been a muse in some way. I know that my wife is for me and she shows me different ways of seeing things everyday. If you’re open to it people –good and bad- will have something to teach you. I enjoy the duality of life and how a rainy day or tragedy can be followed by a beautiful day or a moment of purpose. I’m very interested in capturing those elements in the films I direct and I enjoy showing multiple levels in the characters I’ve played as well. So I guess that struggle of our reality is what my muse is.
If you choose the most important thing a film student should learn, what would it be?
Learn to work with people, but don’t work with people who you personally can’t stand. Develop a clear sense of who you are as an individual. Take the time to understand what you’re about and what you want to be about. I’ve met people who wanted to invest money or work with us but in having conversations I realized I wasn’t comfortable with the path they wanted to go down. If I didn’t know what I was about or what Feenix Films was and is about, we may have taken those paths. It is also important to not feel threatened by others thoughts or opinions. Listen to them-that doesn’t mean you are going to do what they are suggesting, but when you have a clear sense of what you’re doing it is just “food for thought”. It doesn’t have to be your only meal for the day.
Complete this sentence, if I had the film budget of my dreams, I would create _______________.
Well, I’ve always wanted to do a David Fincher-esque Batman movie and I love the grittiness of many films from the 70s, such as The French Connection. More present day dreams would include being able to continue to the make the projects we do and finesse them in order to obtain the best distribution, PR, etc.,. It is rarely touched on but a dedicated and good PR/Publicity Campaign is so important. There are so many projects out there nowadays; so many talented and hard working people. How do you get the public and industry folks to hear about what you’ve done? You have to have a very bright light or a megaphone. So ensuring that a film budget takes that fact seriously and has a solid strategy in order to make that happen is imperative.
Thank you once again for the opportunity to speak with you today I enjoyed the questions!
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Just a nerd girl living a geek lifestyle of writing, filmmaking, photographing, and designing. Managing Editor of Your Film Review™. Believer in God/Jesus. 안녕 I’m also a Director under @DVDNetflix, where I write reviews, talk film, and more. Follow me on Twitter.